Lions are considered kings of the jungle, and we often associate the regal beast with leadership and dignity. This is one of the reasons why the name Leo, the Latin word for lion, has been a favorite of parents in the Western hemisphere for centuries.
This enduring popularity has given us countless notable figures named Leo (which is often used as a diminutive of Leonardo, Leopold, and Leon). Thirteen popes, four saints, and countless kings and emperors have held variations of the name. Famous Leos include Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy, artistic master Leonardo da Vinci, and, of course, Oscar-winning actor Leonardo "Leo" DiCaprio.
Leo is also one of the twelve signs of the zodiac. People born between July 23 and August 22 are born under Leo, the fifth sign of the zodiac. The symbol for Leo is a loop and a curve that represents the head and mane of a lion. According to astrology, Leos are driven, compassionate, aware, and natural leaders.
Leo holds a prominent place in Greek mythology as well. The Leo constellation is associated with the Nemean Lion, a powerful foe of Hercules, whose golden fur was impossible to penetrate, and whose claws could pierce through any armor.
Leo's origins go all the way back to 700 B.C. with the creation of Latin by the earliest Romans (and perhaps even earlier, since Leo came from a Greek word meaning lion). It spread throughout Europe when Germans adopted Leo as a nickname for brave, "lionhearted" men. The variations Leopold and Leonhard took off in Germany and Leon and Leonardo gained footholds elsewhere in Europe. Still, Leo is the root name from which all the others grew.
The rugged history of the name Leo is softened by the way the vowel-heavy, two-syllable, three-letter name rolls off the tongue. Leo manages to be dignified but also modern and playful, which keeps the ancient name perennially relevant.
The name's popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years, peaking at the turn of the 20th century, declining over the next 80 years, and climbing back up the charts starting in the year 2000. The epic romance Titanic, released in 1997 and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, most certainly contributed to Leo's renewed popularity.
Leo also reflects the vintage name trend: Some new parents prefer baby names that would have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned to our parents or grandparents. But because they've been out of circulation for so long, these names sound fresh and charming today.
While Leo is a traditionally masculine name, Lea, Leah, Leona, and Leonora are feminine names that sound similar. And there's no reason Leo couldn't take off as a gender-neutral name. It's this flexibility, as well as its strong meaning and rich history, that may guarantee Leo's popularity with parents for generations to come.
Pope Leo I : Pope from 440 to 461, also known as Leo the Great
Emperor Leo I : Eastern Roman emperor from 457 to 474
Saint Leo of Rouen : Bishop of Rouen, France
Leo Styppes : Patriarch of Constantinople from 1134 to 1143
Leonardo da Vinci : Italian Renaissance artist and engineer
Leo Tolstoy : Russian novelist
Leo D. Maloney : American actor, director, and producer from the silent film era
Leo Penn : American director and father of Sean Penn
Leonardo "Leo" DiCaprio : American actor
Leo Diegel : golfer
Leo Nomellini : football player
Leo Callahan : baseball player
Leo Elster : football player
Leo Genn : actor
Leo Fender : inventor
Leo Hart : football player
Leo McKern : actor